Today, Saturday, “New Christian Life Baptist Mission” reopened its doors for the first time since Katrina. Under the leadership of Pastor Will Mack, Jr., this mission of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church sits smack dab in the middle of the Ninth Ward, surrounded by houses in every shape and of every description.
Many houses still bear the huge X of the National Guardsmen who combed the neighborhoods in the days following our hurricane, searching for the stranded in need of rescue. Fully fifty-percent of the houses are still not occupied and most probably untouched since the August 29, 2005, storm. The streets are broken and potholed and warped. You wouldn’t want to be caught in that neighborhood after dark. And yet, this is where New Christian Life located itself and where they rebuilt after the storm.
Representatives of the Florida Baptist Convention were present, several members of the First Baptist Church of Marianna, and at least two directors of missions. Pastor Will Mack welcomed everyone, then introduced his choir of perhaps five ladies. “This will be their first time to wear these robes since Katrina,” he said to cheers and applause. “The water ruined the zippers, so they’re leaving them open.”
The choir, accompanied by a keyboard and set of drums, rocked that little building as the praise lofted heavenward. People kept coming in throughout the service until an equal number of black and white were present. “How many are here for the first time?” Several lifted their hands, including a man in front of me who looked like he might be homeless.
Coba Beasley is the Director of Missions for the Chipola Baptist Association in Marianna, Florida. He brought greetings and told of the work of their teams over the last year or more, as they worked to redo this building. The keyboard was a gift of a gentleman in Marianna, he said. We all surmised that it had never sounded in Marianna the way it sounded in New Orleans!
Michael Petty is the Director of Missions for the Gulfstream Baptist Association in Fort Lauderdale. His text was Psalm 67, that “we are blessed to be a blessing.” He said, “We had thought we could restore this building in a few months, but it has taken us a year and a half.” At the time he and Pastor Mack began to make plans for the rebuilding, Michael was pastor of the FBC of Marianna. Some of his members were present today, and at least one staffer. In October, he moved to lead the association in Fort Lauderdale.
Pastor Mack told us his story. He had built that congregation from 3 people to 75 prior to Katrina, then when the storm hit, everyone was evacuated to Houston. Will was a driver supervisor for Hotard, a local charter bus company. After he returned from evacuation, he moved to Baton Rouge to work for the company there. Having lost his home, his church, and his congregation in New Orleans, he said, “I figured this was my pink slip from the Lord, that we were through here.” Meanwhile, 30 of his church members who remained in Houston contacted him, asking him to come there and lead them. Now, he was pulled in two directions.
“We had to drive the LSU team to Vanderbilt, and since I was a supervisor, I chose the bus I wanted. On the way back, it broke down in the hills of Tennessee. The company loaded all my passengers on the other six buses, and left me there with the broken bus. My cell phone wouldn’t work either. It was just me and God there.”
“That’s when God let me hear our people in Houston crying out for me to come and help them. It was a ‘Whale’s Belly’ experience. So, I resigned my job in Baton Rouge and moved to Houston. A church there let us meet in their facilities and the Baptist association helped to pay my salary. And now, we’re back in New Orleans.”
One of the pastors who spoke told a story that resonated with me. He said, “When I saw we were going to be coming to New Orleans to help rebuild this church, we set aside $15,000 for the work. But then some of the powers-that-be in my church overruled me and sent the money to the Florida Baptist Convention for disaster relief work. I was not real happy about that.”
The pastor told how he called Dr. John Sullivan, the executive director of Florida Baptists, and explained the problem to him. John laughed and said, “No problem. Just write me a request for funds.” The pastor said, “We ended up, not with $15,000 but with $35,000 for this work!”
Just like the Lord, isn’t it.
Will Mack is an impressive, outgoing, Godly man who looks 15 years younger than his age of 50. That neighborhood is blessed to have him rebuilding his church facility in the midst of such devastation in order to minister to people and become a lighthouse in that darkness.
After the service, outside the building, as the Florida Baptists were serving a lunch of barbecue chicken which they had prepared, Pastor Mack walked over to where I was chatting with the other directors of missions. “See that fellow there?”
He pointed out the homeless-looking man who had sat on the row in front of me. “He’s a neighborhood thief.” Will told of the burglaries the man was responsible for just in the last day or two.
“And he was in church this morning casing our place, to see what we have worth stealing.”
Welcome to the neighborhood, pastor. You can see why you are needed in this place. And we all see why you have to love the Lord to stay here.
In my greeting to the congregation and to our guests, I said, “Many of you will get in your cars and drive back to Florida. You will pull into driveways in impressive neighborhoods where all the lawns are trimmed and the houses are lovely and the streets are safe. When you do, remember Pastor Will Mack and the congregation of New Christian Life Baptist Mission. They are back here for one reason and one reason only: God has called them to minister here.”
They’ve had the love and assistance of a lot of the Lord’s people. Now, they’re going to need their prayers.